Bullard, Bricktop, Baker, people and places in 1920s Jazz Age Paris
The story of Jazz Age Paris goes back to the years that preceded World War One. Black American musicians had brought ragtime music to Paris in the years before the Great War. They had toured Europe and would have appeared as part of a wider vaudeville package.
1917 brought the Americans into the First World War. The New York National Guard, recruiting in Harlem, had raised the 15th New York National Guard Regiment (aka the 369th Infantry Regiment, aka the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’).
Whilst the American high command argued about whether black troops should be armed so that they could shoot at enemy white soldiers, James Reese Europe, the conductor and composer, set about organising the musical talents of his regiment.
When General Pershing the commander of the American Expeditionary Force heard the Harlem Hellfighters regimental jazz band, he wanted to keep them at HQ for himself.
The Harlem Hellfighters regimental jazz band tours France
The band were so good that Pershing sent them out on a morale boosting extended tour of France to get weary French feet tapping. It was a World War One example of cultural soft power.
The sound of Jazz was so new and strange to French ears that fellow French military musicians had to check Reese Europe’s band instruments to see if they had not been tampered with.
Whilst everybody could agree that the band was great not everyone in the American military could get around the idea of a black American regiment actually going armed onto the field of combat. Pershing’s solution was to detach the regiment to the French Army. The French command had no reservations about unleashing the Hellfighters on the enemy.
There can be little doubt that, for many African American soldiers, the experience of being in another country where social and cultural expectations were different from those found in America, was empowering. Some thought of staying on in France, to try their luck in a country and culture where, it appeared, racial prejudice was less marked.
Louis Mitchell and his Jazz Kings
James Reese Europe had sewn the seeds of jazz in France and the first to get a high exposure regular engagement was Louis Mitchell and his Jazz Kings.
Mitchell’s Jazz Kings went down a storm at the Casino de Paris and made two influential music hall stars of the time, Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier, into jazz converts.
With the money he was making Louis Mitchell was soon able to open a restaurant and jazz venue. His home, set in a fine apartment block (69 Rue de Clichy), quickly became the early focal point of the burgeoning Montmartre jazz scene.
Jazz breezes into Paris
Soon many of the streets around Mitchell’s apartment started to echo to the sounds of Jazz. Jazz had come at the right time; its optimism, infectious energy, grace and good time rhythm helped people to live in the moment and to step out of the shadow of war. In post World War One Paris the French and everyone else was ready to dance, tap, clap, drink, shout and cheer as jazz breezed into Paris.
Whilst James Reese Europe and Louis Mitchell are important and influential figures in the Paris jazz craze, it is another African American, Eugene Bullard who became its most central figure.
Eugene Bullard’s backstory is in itself remarkable. As a teenager he ran away from Georgia and stowed away in a boat bound for Europe. He entered Britain at Aberdeen and worked his way to London. By 1913 he was a boxer and also part of a vaudeville act. The act took him to Paris.
He was back in Paris in 1914, this time boxing and when war broke out volunteered for the French Foreign Legion.
He was twice wounded and ended entering the elite world of the French Air Force. He was the first black combat pilot in France. He was decorated with the Croix de Guerre; one of France’s highest military honours. Bullard once said that in France he was free “to be merely a man”.
The kingpin of the Paris jazz scene
Everyone wanted Jazz, it was the craze that defined 1920s Paris culture. Because Bullard had connections in the growing black musicians’ community in Montmartre and among his upper class air force friends, he was soon organising jazz band gigs at society parties and weddings.
Eugene Bullard’s ability to seize the possibilities and mould the opportunities that the jazz craze created made him the man of the moment.
Seeing the popularity and potential of jazz Bullard took drumming lessons from Louis Mitchell. He met Joe Zelli the American impresario. Zelli was a jazz club venue owner in Paris and Bullard was soon drumming and managing Zelli’s Royal Box Club at 16 bis Rue Pierre Fontaine.
Zelli’s the only club that stayed open until dawn
The Zelli’s arabesque club facade was lit all night. According to Bullard it was the only club that stayed open until dawn. Those nightlife lights attracted an international crowd looking for fun.
The devaluation of the French franc in the 1920s coupled with American prohibition made Paris a magnet for the international set and Americans in particular. With devaluation, if you had dollars in your pocket, the longer you stayed in France the richer you got.
In Zelli’s club there were professional dancers (male and female) who provided willing company. Telephones meant you could contact another table. Champagne, the desire to have a good time after the war and the house jazz band driving the party spirit in Zelli’s right through the night to breakfast, made it the late night place to be in Montmartre. Breakfast being served the club closed and stocked up for the next evening.
An altercation on Rue Pierre Fontaine
It would be naive to think that the jazz scene was a non-stop party. Like any small community there were rivalries and differences.
The celebrated clarinettist Sidney Bechet said that it was impossible for him to get home before 10 or 11 in the morning as the jazz people he would meet in the street all wanted to go for an impromptu jam session.
One day, however, having finished his engagement at Chez Florence whilst walking down Rue Pierre Fontaine (the same street as Zelli’s club) he ran into another musician. The two argued then fought and finally shots were fired, passers-by were injured and Bechet ended up in prison for over a year. It was Bullard who raised his bail money.
Bullard and le Grand Duc
In about 1924 Bullard was either the manager or owner of his own club: le Grand Duc (the Nightowl), which is point 12 on the map.
Bullard’s place was at the heart of the Paris jazz scene and acted as a community hub. Because Bullard knew everybody and was also well connected in French society, it was the natural centre of gravity for news, work and gossip.
It was tiny and selective. Just how tiny can be seen from my photographs of it; I also managed to peer in through some grimy windows to the interior. Of the three jazz club venues that I feature on the walk this is the only one left standing.
Florence Embry Jones makes the place swing
Photographs of the time show Bullard and staff in formal evening wear. To give the place soul and swing he hired the hostess Florence Embry Jones. Her job was to welcome everyone, sing, mingle and generally manage the mood.
She made the place a success; soon Chaplin, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Fatty Arbuckle, the Prince of Wales, half of the rest of the European aristocracy, Edward G. Robinson, Gloria Swanson and many others, when in Paris, were telling their taxi drivers “au Grand Duc” (to the Grand Duc).
Florence Embry Jones then left the Grand Duc and went to work at Louis Mitchell’s jazz club. He promptly renamed it Chez Florence (meaning Florence’s place). Chez Florence was also located somewhere on Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle before moving to 61 Rue Blanche in 1926.
Finding a new hostess who could replicate Jones’ success was not going to be easy but Bullard, because his club acted as a community meeting point where news was exchanged and people got work, knew exactly who to ask.
The person he asked was Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith. Bricktop, so named because of her pale complexion, freckles and red hair, had plenty of experience of singing in Chicago and Harlem jazz clubs. Hearing about the excitement the Paris jazz scene was generating, she jumped on a liner and came into Paris via the Gare Saint-Lazare where Bullard was waiting for her.
When she got to the club Bricktop was so disappointed with the place she broke down in tears. For her it was like a hole in the wall and no bigger than the size of a booth in any of the U.S clubs she had been used to working in.
She said, there were “about twelve tables and a small bar that would look crowded with six pairs of elbows leaning on it”. She must have thought about heading straight back to Gare Saint-Lazare, the coast, a liner and Harlem, but she stayed.
It is a good thing that she did stay because she was every bit as good a hostess as her predecessor had been. Paris was good to her. The Grand Duc remained one of the top joints on the Paris circuit and Bricktop ended up with enough money to buy a club of her own.
That club, on the advice of Cole Porter, she called ‘Bricktop’s and its location was at the back of the Nouvelle Athènes café building (by that time called the ‘Monico’). Where the building used to be is point 5, 62 Rue Pigalle.
It is now the delivery point for the organic supermarket we talked about at point 4. We already saw how in spite of its cultural significance the Nouvelle Athènes café site was eventually demolished in the early 2000s.
Because Bricktop’s building was part of the Nouvelle Athènes café/Monico complex when it was bulldozed it also destroyed the walls that had heard Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Django Rheinhart play.
Everybody who had ever been anybody in the 1920s and early 1930s would have walked through that door, but these days only organic fruit and veg get in.
Josephine Baker was a promising dancer and chorus girl who featured in some Broadway shows. Her performances got her noticed and in 1925 she was on a liner going to France to dance in La Revue Nègre in the Champs Elysée Theatre. By 1925 jazz was the rage in Paris.
Baker, like many other Americans, would have come into Paris at the Gare St Lazare from the Normandy ports where the liners docked.
Baker’s energetic dancing in the Revue show launched her career. Her style was eccentric and uninhibited; a generous mix of eroticism, frantic physicality and comedy. She and her pet cheetah put the roar into the 1920s Paris scene.
She was soon selling out the Folies Bergère and the Casino de Paris, two of Paris’ best known entertainment venues. She became a huge star. Film roles and international tours followed.
She had her critics: she was called an ‘exotic puppet’ by Jane Nardal an intellectual and critic from Martinique. Others said her careless style reinforced stereotypes and played to European male fantasies.
Baker probably hardly cared, she fell in love with Paris and Paris loved her back. She had struck gold. She had a club, ‘Chez Josephine’ (Josephine’s Place), at 40 Rue Pierre Fontaine where the Carrousel is now. She was the showbiz sensation of the Jazz Age in Paris and spent most of the rest of her life in France where she is still fondly remembered.
Continuing the walk
Now continue down Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle about 200 metres and take the first street on your right which is Rue de Douai. The next stop is point 6 which is number 9 of this street, Toulouse-Lautrec’s last address in Paris.
All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1), (2)
All Wikipedia photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :
(1) This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States., Eugene-Bullard, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(2) Louis Gaudin - Zig (1882-1936), Louis Gaudin - Casino de Paris - Josephine Baker 1930, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons